Anglican women find strength at network meeting

March 6, 2009

While political and social concerns topped the agenda at a meeting in New York February 22-27 of the International Anglican Women's Network, members said that merely meeting in person for the first time gave them renewed courage to advance women's issues in sometimes-hostile environments.

They came from 30 of the worldwide Anglican Communion's 38 provinces (national or regional groupings of national churches) and talked about the places where girls receive less education then boys, where women bear a greater burden of care for AIDS patients, where poverty affects more women than men and where women are not well-represented in the councils of the church.

They talked about issues affecting women in all countries, developed and developing, such as domestic violence, and how to organize best to bring these concerns to the attention of secular and church leaders.

"I am going to carry with me the message and what we have learned together. I am going to go back home to the primate [Archbishop Justice Ofei Akrofi] and his wife and tell him we are going to make the voices of women heard," Evelyn Lamptey of Ghana (in the Province of West Africa) told the group at the meeting's closing dinner.

"I have learned so much from all of our sisters. I go home enthused," said Doris Clements of Ireland. For Ruth Choi of Korea, the gathering meant she "felt empowered to strengthen women's voices," which means "we can strengthen the Anglican Church."

As previously reported on Episcopal Life Online, the network released a statement supporting greater roles for women in decision-making church bodies. The 12-year-old network, which lay fallow for several years and was rejuvenated in 2006, also emphasized the unity of Anglican women even in the midst of controversy over theological issues such as homosexuality.

Patricia Menéndez, a beautician in Montevideo, Uruguay, said the network and her attendance at the annual meetings of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, enabled her to find her voice. "There were ladies from all over the world, from different situations, political, economic, but we all share a lot of things in common," she said.

Menéndez represented the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, which is based in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the network meeting. Its conservative primate, Archbishop Gregory Venables, has welcomed members of Episcopal Church dioceses that wish to leave the Episcopal Church to join his province.

He is also opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood, but Menéndez said her bishop in Uruguay, Miguel Tamayo, supports the idea and has asked the provincial synod to allow it. Last November, Menéndez spoke to the provincial executive council. "They listened to me about why we need women to be ordained. I know they don't agree but they decided to make a small group [task force] to talk to each other and discuss this matter again," she said in an interview.

"I told them about IAWN and UNCSW. They had very little information," she said. That meeting led to the organization of a discussion about women's issues in the Southern Cone, which is scheduled for June, 2009 at Venables' home, she said. "This meeting has changed myself deep inside," she said.

Network members discussed relations with various groups that advance women's issues, such as the Mothers' Union, the Anglican Women's Fellowship, Anglican Women's Empowerment and United Thank Offering.

Each representative was encouraged at the New York meeting to think about what various members of their communities could contribute, from fundraising to advice to political influence.

For Meagan Morrison, her Australian landscape contains some familiar anomalies. "There are around 300 people in the synod," she observed, "and maybe 100 are women. But in the parishes, there are more women than men."

For Jolly Babirukamu from Uganda, support for women's issues intersects with her day job. In a region with many children orphaned by AIDS, Babirukamu works with the Nyaka AIDS Foundation to support the many grandmothers raising children whose parents have died of AIDS. It means working to reverse cultural expectations that elders will be supported by their children and giving the grandmothers the tools to survive and raise another generation, in the form of help with parenting skills, micro loans to start businesses and agricultural expertise.

For Priscilla Julie, who is coordinator of the network's steering committee, as for many women in Commonwealth countries, involvement in women's issues began with her membership in the Mothers' Union, the worldwide Anglican organization that runs programs for families, such as literacy and health courses, and provides disaster relief.

Trained as a lawyer, "I have a passion for representing the voices of women," says Julie, who lives in the Seychelles. It began with her involvement in the Mothers' Union during the 1970s, which led to her election as diocesan president of the group. In 2005 she was chosen as regional representative to the IAWN.

As with many of the women gathered in New York, Julie's work in the church was complemented by commitments to secular women's groups. She is acting chair of the women's organization of the opposition Seychelles National Party and was secretary of the Human Rights Group in the Seychelles; she also helped organize services in her church for Human Rights Day. "Outside [the church] and inside, the issues are the same," she observed.

For Morrison, work life and church commitments have converged. Currently a health policy officer with the Australian Capital Territory, she will soon go to Papua New Guinea to work with Anglicare StopAIDS, an Australian church-affiliated public health agency that works in AIDS prevention, in Port Moresby. It will be her second sojourn in Papua, New Guinea after a stint as a high school science teacher which "transformed my life," Morrison said.

"That was where my work and my church life came together," she remembered. In Australia she has been involved with women's issues in the church and with IAWN since 2006. For Morrison, perhaps the most valuable aspect of her work with IAWN is the opportunity to call up human faces around the world.

"I can help with making women in an urban parish in Canberra, when they watch the news on TV, know that in all those places, we have sisters."